The season of festivities is over, and, once more, the year 2016 begins with warning signs. History is an unquestionable pattern of hope and disaster. Nowhere is it truer than in the Middle East.
In the midst of turmoil in the region, the nuclear deal, signed between Iran and six world powers in July 2015, was hailed as an historic success. In stages, it promised to end Iran’s long isolation since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which overthrew America’s close ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and brought to power a vehemently anti-US regime in Tehran. The 35-year freeze between Iran and the West, and sanctions against Iran, caused great hardship for Iranians.
For the United States and other powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), the likelihood of restoring normal ties with Iran brought prospects of relief. They too had paid a high price in lost opportunities for business, and difficulty in accessing Iranian oil. Sanctions on Iranian exports made oil supplies tight despite Saudi Arabia increasing its production from time to time. Sanctions on Iran’s Shia clerical regime were good for the House of Saud, and their oil-rich kingdom.
For President Barack Obama, the thaw in relations with Iran, despite strong opposition from Israel, the United States Congress, and the Saudi rulers, was one of two major foreign policy victories. The other was normalization with communist Cuba for the first time since Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in 1959. These successes abroad, along with his healthcare plan at home, are supposed to form Obama’s legacy at the end of his presidency in January 2017.
Throughout his White House years, Obama has encountered fierce resistance from conservatives in the Republican and Democratic parties alike. For him, the first African American to be elected president, a durable legacy is particularly important. However, achievements which make headlines is one thing, reality on the ground is another.
Less than a year after the nuclear agreement aimed at ensuring that Iran did not make the bomb, Obama’s main rationale, things between Washington and Tehran do not look all that promising, and recent events in the Middle East do not augur well.
Two developments in particular have caused a sharp deterioration with threatening consequences in the coming year. On December 30, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was preparing to impose new sanctions against firms and individuals in Iran. The report followed Iran’s test of a medium-range missile which, according to UN monitors, is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran insists that the missile is conventional, and purely for defensive purposes. Tehran has long insisted that the country does not seek nuclear weapons; its nuclear program is peaceful.
Initially, Iran’s foreign ministry rejected any connection between its missile program and the nuclear agreement. President Hassan Rouhani further accused the United States of “illegal meddling” and instructed Iran’s defense minister to accelerate the country’s ballistic missile program in the face of new sanctions.
One cause of escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran was bad enough. Yet more serious events have since followed in the Middle East. On January 2, Saudi Arabia put to death 47 men in what Human Rights Watch described as the largest mass execution in the country since 1980. The number of those executed was shocking, among them a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a non-violent critic of the Saudi ruling establishment.
The cleric was accused of breaking allegiance with the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and supporting rioting and destruction of public property during protests in Shia-majority towns in Saudi Arabia in 2011-2012. According to Human Rights Watch, local residents and family members insisted that al-Nimr supported only peaceful protests, and eschewed all forms of violent opposition to the government.
The executions in Saudi Arabia, and the fallout thereof, have raised the power struggle with Iran to a new level, and there is a real sense of crisis in the Middle East now. Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has described al-Nimr as a “martyr” and warned Saudi Arabia of “divine revenge.” Demonstrations against Saudi Arabia have taken place in Iran and other countries. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has expressed his “deep dismay” over the executions.
Angered by the international criticism, the Saudi authorities have broken off diplomatic relations with Iran. Sudan and Djibouti have followed Saudi Arabia by cutting off ties. Other Gulf states have either reduced the level of relations with Tehran, or recalled their ambassadors. For their part, the Iranian authorities have accused the Saudi air force of attacking Iran’s embassy in Yemen.
Motives behind these actions are worth considering. Questions must be asked: Is Iran being provoked into launching a direct attack on Saudi interests, and what may follow? If that happens, the anti-Iran sentiment in the American Congress and the Pentagon will be reinforced. There will be calls in Washington to act in support of Saudi Arabia. President Obama, in all likelihood, will resist such calls. Nevertheless, the Saudis and the Israel lobby will push him hard. There may well be pressure from the British, French, Turkish and other Sunni Arab states.
Will Obama be able to resist? Or will he succumb to the pressure?
The stakes are high. If Obama shows determination, and stands up to the pressure, criticisms of his foreign policy will increase. His detractors will accuse him of acting against America’s national interest. The final year of his presidency will be chaotic.
On the other hand, if he bows to the pressure, there is a risk of the United States being dragged into a new conflict with Iran. The consequences will be damaging on the ground and beyond. Obama’s carefully crafted strategy to chart a more equidistant course in the Middle East will be thwarted. And his presidential legacy, irreparably damaged, will pass on to his successor.